From London’s suburbs to a world ablaze: a brief history of CO₂ emissions

Interactive map of global carbon emissions from 1750 to 2010. Aurelien Saussay, CC BY-ND

The COP21 climate summit concluded in December 2015 with a historical agreement. As 195 countries have just agreed on the necessity to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees centigrade by the end of this century, it is time to take a look back on the history of CO₂ emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Until the very last round of negotiations, the differences in the historical responsibility of each country have remained one of the main obstacles on the road to a global agreement on climate. Emerging countries, which have industrialized only recently, and developing countries that are just beginning to take off are right to refuse to undertake the same level of efforts against climate change as their developed counterparts.

This sentiment is confirmed by a new interactive map of worldwide CO₂ emissions from fossil-fuel burning and cement production over the past 260 years. This map makes it possible to explore interactively the total and per capita emissions of each country, along with their geographical distribution, over the past two centuries. It also tracks the evolution of worldwide emissions and the progressive consumption of the carbon budget that would allow global warming to remain below 2 degrees.

Présentation vidéo de la carte interactive.

By combining national historical emissions data from CDIAC (from 1750 to 2010) with decadal data on population density from the European project HYDE (also available over the period 1750-2010), the distribution of emissions can be estimated across time and space over the whole planet – specifically, on a grid with a 5’ resolution (5’ being 1/12th of a degree, that is 10km by 10km cells at the equator).

These maps, and their evolution over time, illustrate the contributions of each of the world’s regions since the mid-18th century – offering at the same time a striking picture of the progressive diffusion of industrial revolution over the past two centuries.

This data highlights a number of key elements to better understand the debate over differentiated historical responsibilities:

  • Until the middle of the 20th century, only Europe and the United States (along with Japan, to a smaller extent) were contributing significantly to global emissions.

  • The rest of the world has only “lit up” over the past 30 years, with China leading the pack.

  • With growth picking up speed in emerging economies, emissions have shot up over the past fifteen years.

  • Emissions appear highly concentrated geographically when weighted by population. Improved data, including in particular the location of fossil power plants and energy-intensive plants (in industries such as cement, aluminum or paper for example) would only strengthen this finding.

This brief history of CO₂ emissions across the globe reminds us that Western countries hold a specific responsibility in the fight against climate change. Achieving an early industrial revolution did allow a much earlier economic takeoff, but it also implied that Western countries have emitted a disproportionate share of the total emissions budget available to limit global warming to two degrees.

This differentiated historical responsibility, which is acknowledged in the Paris Agreement, sets the bar higher for Western countries’ efforts against climate change. Their specific responsibility must lead to an increase in transfers towards developing and emerging economies, both financial and technological, to ensure that these growing economies limit their use of fossil fuels as much as possible while sustaining their economic development unimpaired.

Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French